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Red Wine with Fish? Maybe
Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed September 10, 2001. For more information go to

One of the first rules we learn about matching food and wine is that white wine goes with fish. It doesn't take much expertise to see that a robust red wine would overwhelm a dish as pale and delicate as sole or scrod; and that goes double if the wine is tartly acidic and astringently tannic.

But the next rule we learn is that there's an exception to every rule, and this one is no exception. Fish cooked in red wine, as is commonplace in Bordeaux, demands a red wine to go with it. And fish that's not delicate white but oily and dark - bluefish, mackerel, tuna or salmon - opens up another world of red-wine-and-fish possibilities.

The affinity of salmon and Pinot Noir in particular has become well- known. Salmon is fatty and rich; Pinot tends to be lighter and more subtle than the bigger reds. Together, they break the old rules in a delicious way.

Or do they?

I've often enjoyed Pinot and salmon, so I know the match works. But last night, feeling in an experimental mood, I decided to serve a salmon dish with a red and a white wine so we could compare and contrast.

It was Sunday, so the fish market wasn't open, but a can of Alaskan salmon and an old recipe for salmon croquettes filled the bill, with a quick modification involving a nonstick skillet to keep them within our current hold-the-calories lifestyle. We opened up the Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio reviewed below, and got right to work.

The result? Both wines worked OK, but here's the hard truth: Despite the new conventional wisdom, in this particular pairing on this particular day, the white wine seemed to make the better match. The red was palate-freshening but almost too fruity and ripe to complement the fish; it was like pouring chocolate sauce on a salad. The white, on the other hand, didn't merely cleanse the palate; its flavors and those of the fish harmonized like a pair of New Orleans street musicians on a Dixieland riff.

What did we learn from this? Maybe we "proved" the rule about white wine and fish, but the red-wine match certainly worked. But here's the most important lesson, and you can apply it to all things wine: Learn the rules, but don't be afraid to test them. There's no better way to learn what YOU like than trying it for yourself.


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